Postmodernism

Michael Sugrue: An Intellectual Life

The most popular video on Dr. Michael Sugrue’s YouTube channel is his 1992 lecture on Marcus Aurelius. meditations. Marc Aurèle is a stoic. Sugrue calls himself one too. “All Marcus wants to do is live a philosophical life,” Sugrue says, “but he happens to have the misfortune to be… Emperor of Rome.” As emperor, Marcus Aurelius had unimaginable power. He ruled the entire known world. “Imagine a man for whom all restraints of law, custom and political order are removed. He can have anything he wants,” Sugrue said. behave well, you know something about the soul below.”

When I spoke to Michael Sugrue, he looked nothing like the man who adored Marcus Aurelius. In 1992, Sugrue looked like the prototypical academic – beige blazer, ruffled khaki, gigantic square glasses encroaching on a clean-shaven boy’s face. The man I met on Zoom was grizzled, with a baritone voice and a deep, throaty laugh. He had a Confucian-looking beard, with hair sticking out from his chin in gnarled, patchy wisps.

The soul below, however, was the same. Sugrue, seated next to his daughter Genevieve, was eager to discuss ideas – about justice (“it’s not like fins on a Cadillac”), religion (“I’m Catholic, straight up”) and academia (“half the people are on the meds, not the ones who need it most”).

Sugrue recently retired from Ave Maria University in Florida. He is a long-time academic who has “not really had a career”. His true passion is reaching audiences beyond the classroom. Geneviève uploaded Sugrue’s entire lecture series from 1992 to YouTube in 2020, 56 lectures lasting approximately 37 hours. The channel has more than two and a half million views.

The lectures were recorded as part of the Great minds of the Western intellectual tradition series, a collection of interviews on the greatest authors and thinkers of the West. Sugrue and his colleague, Dr. Darren Staloff, were finishing their degree program at Columbia in 1992 when a mutual friend introduced them to Tom Rollins of The Teaching Company, who offered Sugrue and Staloff the chance to anchor the great minds program.

“[We] just put it in front of a camera and watch the magic happen,” Staloff said.

Sugrue’s first lecture in the series is on Plato, the last on critical theory. His remarkable oratorical skill is displayed throughout. In each speech, Sugrue goes back and forth on a makeshift stage. His steps, like a metronome, mark the rhythm of the conference. He doesn’t carry a note card or read from a prompter. There’s barely a mustache in 37 hours of footage – no “ums”, no filler words, no bluster.

When I asked him where his speaking skills came from, Sugrue told me that the lessons came from a “different part” of his brain, like a stuttering child who can sing words he couldn’t. not say otherwise.

“I suspect I’m using a different hemisphere, one that usually has no words,” Sugrue said. “But on the other hand, it ties things together cohesively, because the connection is musical.”

Sugrue grew up in an Irish Catholic home in 1950s New York. He attended local parochial schools, where he was “impressed” by the priests and nuns, especially the Jesuits. In the late 1970s, he enrolled at the University of Chicago and studied with Allan Bloom and Joseph Cropsey. He became a Platonist. When Sugrue arrived in Chicago, he said, “We were getting our first shot at what would be called postmodernism, but we didn’t know what to call it yet.”

After graduating from Chicago in 1979, he spent the next decade at Columbia University. He received his doctorate in American history and taught literature and the Western canon until graduation. He spent two years at Johns Hopkins and a decade at Princeton before ending his teaching career at Ave Maria in 2019.

Ave’s former student Brigid Baker said Sugrue, as a teacher, had a “seriousness” that was both intimidating and enchanting. Her first impression of Sugrue, which she still has, was that “he literally seemed to know it all.”

“He used to tell us that he was carving new grooves in our brain, like records,” she said. “And we all felt that every week for every conference and we thought, ‘Oh, there’s a whole new set of pattern grooves. “”

Sugrue takes a keen interest in the intellectual life of his students. He challenged them to read thinkers who tested their most basic assumptions.

“If you are Kantian, he will make you read Hume. If you’re a traditional conservative, you’re going to read John Rawls. If you are a Hayekian, you will read Karl Marx. If you’re a Marxist, you’ll read Schumpeter,” Staloff told me. “It’s not to change your mind, but to expand your mind.”

In retirement, Sugrue co-hosts The idea store podcast with her daughter Geneviève. Its name derives from Sugrue’s attempt to introduce philosophy to his children in their youth, taking them to the “idea store” to “buy” ideas. On the podcast, he and Geneviève discuss the Great Books, answer questions from listeners, and exchange laughs.

Sugrue was diagnosed with cancer eleven years ago. Doctors at the time gave him five years to live. He said thinking about Marcus Aurelius has taken on new meaning since his diagnosis.

“Being sick teaches you, you’re not in control, you’re not in charge,” he said. “And you must learn to play the hand that is dealt to you.”

Geneviève said the illness brought her closer to her father.

“Honestly, if I learned stoicism from someone, it really wasn’t from Marcus Aurelius. It came from him.